The Bill of Rights depends on “We the People.”

Abigail Adams said, “Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” Retirement is an oasis of opportunities for learning whatever you want. For example, what’s the story of the Bill of Rights? Yes, we have a loose knitted idea, but its importance to the citizenry makes it deserving of a tighter weave. 

Chuck Taft teaches American studies in Milwaukee. Last year, he received an award for his work with eighth graders whom we can assume are tech shrewd and entertainment demanding. Chuck’s creative lesson plan tells us he knows that.   

Taft plays a game with the students he calls Bill of Rights Survivor. The goal is for the students to decide which of the amendments (two through ten) should be the sole survivor. The torches on the Survivor series are replaced with LED candles. Immunity idols are hidden in the room. Students are assigned an amendment to learn and present to the class to convince other “tribes” why their amendment is the most important. Everybody votes as in the tribe has spoken. “It’s time for you to go, Sixth Amendment.” The last tribe standing receives Bill of Rights mugs. 

Woody Holton is a History Professor in Virginia. He asks his students to tell him what specific clauses of the Constitution you like? Their answers are predictable, freedom of speech, gun rights, no unlawful search and seizure, etc. Unlike the eighth graders playing Bill of Rights Survivor, these are university students. But the things they say they like in the Constitution are not in the Constitution. 

When my sixth grade students crossed the threshold into the classroom on the first day of class, what was on their mind was to secure a desk near friends. Settled in, they waited. Some knew what was coming. Most didn’t. “Good morning, and welcome to Sixth Grade. Boys and girls, just now, crossing over the threshold into the classroom, you stepped out of democracy into a dictatorship.” Some chuckled, and others gave each other worried looks. I gave them a moment to digest what I’d said. No other time in our year together would this lesson velcro as tight as on the first day of class. I explained that democracy is a system of government where the ultimate power resides with the people. Democracy is messy; people’s viewpoints all over the map and most importantly it takes a lot of time, energy, and vigilance. My time with them was short, I explained, much to accomplish. Our time didn’t afford for endless discussion and diverse opinions. So I was the commander-in-chief or big cheese if you like.

American history taught in the later elementary grades covers early American history, Native Americans and colonial experience. So, I thought I knew this period until I read Lies My Teachers Told Me by James W. Loewen. But that’s a story for another time. Post-retirement I’ve delved into American history teeter-tottering from amazed, disheartened, impressed sometimes within the same chapter or podcast. Without students to share my up and down reactions, Tim listened with admirable interest. 

Who has not admired that group of men who led the American Revolution against the Brits? It’s the stuff of superheroes. Spiderman knew his unique role in fighting bad guys when he said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” The Hulk, less introspective spit out, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” The Brits would not have gotten away with their Intolerable Acts (Sugar Act; Stamp Act) with Batman around. “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am BATMAN!” In the end, the Brits didn’t get away with it not because of Batman, but the Founders determination to free us from oppression. 

Sam Adams wrote, “Our unalterable resolution should be to be free.” This was a call for freedom from the tyranny of the Brits. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Sam Adams and Patrick Henry were not thinking about invisible shackles placed on white women or iron neck rings and chains used to restrain black men. Those were fights yet to be fought.   

The Constitution was written (1787) in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia summer and represented the framework of the skeleton of America’s system of government. In the last week, as the Founding Fathers dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, two delegates, Sam Adams and Patrick Henry, concerned the federal government would be too powerful wanted protection. That would come to be called The Bill of Rights. 

Federalists Washington, Hamilton, and Madison wrote a series of articles pointing out the new republic set up a system of checks and balances to ensure no one branch had too much power. They wrote that the Constitution only limited the government, not the people. The states would protect people’s rights. The antifederalists were unconvinced. 

David Bobb, (Bill of Rights Institute) a scholar, said in an interview on Civics 101, “Alexander Hamilton wrote the Constitution itself is a bill of rights,” a skeleton where one branch is connected to another branch (separation of powers, each keeping an eye on the other) and is the mainstay of our liberty.”  Hamilton and Madison wrote that bills of rights to the Constitution “are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution but they could even be dangerous.” For example, if the Bill of Rights spells out the fundamental rights you have in your state of Virginia, but are not listed in the federal Bill of Rights, does it mean that you don’t have that right? It made more sense to leave the decision of people’s rights to each state. 

However, the push back was strong. Not wanting to rehash the last few months, the Federalists concluded it was best not to toss out the baby (Constitution) with the bathwater. James Madison convinced his fellow Federalists to go along for the sake of getting the job done.  He volunteered to take on the “nauseous project” (his words) of writing it. Each state was to write what they considered important. Madison’s first list was a scroll of 200 rights. 

The Senate reduced the rights to 12. The states ratified 10 of the 12, and this new document was called the Bill of Rights. The two rights not endorsed were (1) the allocation of seats in the House of Representative. (2) Compensation for Senators and Representatives. Number two was ratified 202 years later, in 1992. It reads: No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

Woody Holton, American professor of history, said (Civics 101) that the “largest number of people thought that the Constitution made the federal government too strong. And structural reforms to the Constitution were the last thing that James Madison wanted. He liked weakening the states. He was a strong national government guy, and so he didn’t want to shift power back to the states, and he was also an anti-democratic guy and didn’t want to shift power back to the people either.” But he had to cough up something for the critics. So he gave them some rights he considered harmless, benign.

In the late eighteenth century, nobody challenged gun rights. Of course not. You need to protect yourself from the sore losers, the Brits, and American Indians who put up a fight when we took their land. In 1798 the idea of a threat to freedom of speech or religion was a bird without a nest. 

For a hundred and fifty years the Bill of Rights didn’t have much impact on the citizens. The Federal Congress could not pass a law abridging certain freedoms, but your state could. Then in 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights does indeed apply to the states. So piece by piece, the amendment of the Bill of Rights is incorporated into the states. To get states to obey the laws took great movements of citizens. For example, the Supreme Court ruled an end to segregation in 1954, but it wasn’t until a massive citizens’ effort took place that these protections were applied, albeit unevenly and grudgingly and we are still working on it.  

Alvin Tillery, Director for the Center of the Study of Diversity and Democracy, in an interview on Civics 101, “…it took thousands and thousands of people putting their bodies on the line to convince the power structure, which is very conservative always, that they should make good on these, the text of these charter documents, right? But the framers knew that they were hypocritical when they were writing these documents…they made a Herrenvolk, master race democracy for themselves and it took an evolution in this country to undo it. And now it’s going to take an evolution to preserve because we do have powerful forces that would like to return us to a master race democracy.”

Hannah McCarthy, a host of the Civics 101 podcast, tells us, “It’s like this idea of ‘no man being above the law’ or the words, ‘we the people’ of ‘All men are created equal.’ The true power of these words is not given by the government. It has to be fought for by the people.  We have to rise up to wield it.” 

In 2018, I attended town meetings with local politicians, carried signs at street corners, delivered flyers to homes, called Senators and wrote to Representatives. Passion for justice within burned hot and I understood what Judge Learned Hand meant when he said, “I think we place too many hopes in laws and courts and constitutions. These are false hopes. Believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the heart of men and women. And when it dies there, no law, no court, no constitution can save it.” The Bill of Rights depends on “We the People” for its protection.